In this pseudo documentary of sorts, director and pontificator, Orson Welles guides the viewer through a series of stories meant as a meditation on the nature of truth, falsehood, and art, focusing on painters, forgers, biographers.
One of my favorite sources of education and entertainment on the craft of film making is a now discontinued YouTube series called “Every Frame A Painting.” The video essays on this channel are an excellent primer for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge of the language of film and on why certain films, shots, or directors are revered in the film community.
In one of the video essays on this channel, Tony Zhou, the narrator, claims that everything he knows about editing, he learned from the film, “F is for Fake.”
That is one heck of a recommendation. Add to that endorsement that this was Orson Welles’ last completed film and his first, “Citizen Kane,” is widely regarded as either the greatest or near the greatest film ever made, and I simply had no choice but to seek this film out.
The film begins with Orson Welles doing magic in a train station. He addresses the viewer directly and indirectly and introduces the ideas he is about to begin expounding upon. Many of the characters who will feature in each of the film’s storylines are introduced in short order and while he claims that he will tell the truth for the next hour, one also wonders how true that may be, since the subject of the film is truth and falsity itself.
The film proper then begins, cutting between several stories throughout. In one story, we hear of famed and alleged fine art forger, Elmyr de Hory. Intersecting with that story is the tale of Clifford Irving, Elmyr’s biographer, and wholesale forger of a diary he claimed to be Howard Hughes’. We also follow Welles himself as he relates the story of his own truth benders such as his claim to be a famed actor before he was, his ‘War of the Worlds” broadcast, and even his film “Citizen Kane.” Finally, Welles presents us with the story of Oja Kodar who was the daughter of a famed forger and inspiration for Pablo Picasso. Or was she?
The film flows between these stories with an editing style that is simultaneously frenetic and playful. The editing and scripting of this film feels far more modern than I expected from a movie made in 1973. It feels like Welles is playing with the audience and the film itself. This combined with the short runtime makes this one of the easiest films to watch that I’ve ever reviewed.
The real downfall of this film is that it is so pretentious. One of my greatest pet peeves in film and art in general is the question “What is Art?” It seems like every film school student ends up making a short film about this question and the most pretentious people never seem to grow tired of asking this lamest of all question,
While this is not the exact question of this film in particular, it is similar in its intellectual wankery. Some documentaries explore the refugee crisis in Syria. This one is about incredibly privileged, sanctimonious, and “beautiful people,” of whom Welles claims to be one, luxuriating in villas and discussing whose opinion matters the most.
Welles may point out that the discussion is a silly one, akin to watching magician pull a coin from a child’s ear, but the trick of the coin is delightful because of its simplicity and its reliance upon the child’s naiveté, for the illusions success.
“F is for Fake,” is not simple and the implication that the audience is seems emblematic of why the film is little more than an excellently edited spotlight shining on a man yelling ‘look how important are my thoughts.’